The Criterion Collection has just brought out a new Blu-ray edition of Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 phantasmagoria about cars, nihilistic consumerism, and civilization's imminent collapse into barbarity. As I often do these days in connection with Godard's movies—and not only his movies, either, but his more than most—I wonder what the latest generation of cinephiles will make of the thing. That's if they don't confuse it with Andrew Haigh's 2011 gay romance of the same name, a pretty good flick that's also available from Criterion.
Presumably, Today's Young People be able to appreciate how brilliant a lot of Weekend is. The movie's great sequences are fairly undeniable if you've got eyes. But 45 years later, viewers obviously won't have access to the 1960s context: the whole roller coaster of ever more extreme artistic and political ideas and fashions that Godard's films of that breakneck decade so often seemed to be reacting to and anticipating all at once.
Back then, he was an artist in constant dialogue with his times. One who talked even faster than most Frenchmen, too. And the unanswerable question about so much of the memorable art from that era—from Andy Warhol to the Rolling Stones, from Norman Mailer's reportage to Robert Crumb's comics—is where individual genius leaves off and the fructifying context kicks in.
The stated theme of Weekend is this: "The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror." As for the movie's storyline, if it can be called one, it's a much sourer and less sympathetic version of Jean-Paul Belmondo's and Anna Karina's road odyssey in Godard's Pierrot le Fou. Corinne and Roland (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), a callous Parisian couple who don't even like each other much, set out on a weekend drive to the country to witness—if not hasten—her father's demise. They're expecting a big payday in his will.
The landscape they travel through is a sort of matter-of-fact, unrecognized apocalypse, crammed with wrecked cars and corpses nobody bats an eye at. Once they lose their own wheels—"My Hermès bag!" Corinne howls as she escapes the flaming crash, a line Darc claims she improvised—they lurch into Lewis Carroll territory, encountering everyone from Emily Brontë to a splendidly sashed Saint-Just (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Then they end up as the captives of a crazed, cannibalistic band of hippie revolutionaries. Though the term "Stockholm syndrome" wouldn't be coined until 1973, it's a fair description of Darc's behavior in the meat-gnawing closing shot.
Yet at the time, to many filmmakers not in Godard's league, "the bourgeoisie" was a fairly easy and flip target. Because equating crass, conventional taste with moral rot—and therefore, turning snobbery into moral superiority—is an avant-garde perennial, they came in for more shellacking in the 1960s than they probably deserved. After all, there were and are far worse dragons to slay, not that you'd know it from a lot of the era's movies.
When the counterculture was at its worst, you'd practically think that suburbia's clothes, hairdos, martinis, and sexual mores were responsible for getting us into Vietnam. Or at any rate, comparable sins. Godard's refusal of so much as an instant's compassion for the horrid couple at Weekend's center—let alone identification—does have its vanity as indictments go, especially compared to his much more tormented relationship to the characters in Pierrot le Fou.
Meanwhile, Weekend's most didactic scenes—a black and an Algerian garbageman delivering long, Franz Fanon-ish lectures about colonialism and Vietnam, for instance—aren't just deliberate ways of torturing audiences by accusing them of going to the movies for mere entertainment. (Just why this was a sin is something I've never fathomed.) They also flatter Godard by implying that, unlike shallow us, he really has thought and read deeply about these issues, which probably wasn't the case. Francois Truffaut once maliciously wondered why so many of the quotes from books in his ex-pal Jean-Luc's movies turned out to be from their opening chapters. It says a lot about the era that some of Weekend's most turgid moments are actually just the director's idea of chic.
So we're left with some great sequences of two very unpleasant people walking past cars on fire and grumping about it. If that sounds more like Samuel Beckett's turf than Easy Rider's, bingo. Watching the movie for the first time in decades, I kept catching myself feeling annoyed at Godard's posturing—which a lot of Weekend is—until I got knocked out by the next incredible, dare-I-say-profound image or scene. As problematic as the hippie-cannibal finale is (you really can't tell whether this is Godard's idea of righteous vengeance or he's rattled as hell by what his vision has led him to), the image of a Sergeant Pepper-appareled drummer playing as the camera dollies past him to a machine gun ready for business is the '60s in a nutshell.
He plainly knew that Weekend was some kind of ending. "Fin de cinema," the closing title card reads, and Godard would indeed spend the next decade making lecture-movies no one saw before gingerly returning to the fray of actually interesting some sort of audience. From his biographer Richard Brody on down, many Godardians have argued against the fallacy of thinking that only his 1960s movies matter, and I'm with them so far as cinematic art goes. One of my happiest moments in my other gig as GQ's movie critic was sneaking 2010's migraine-inducing but brilliant Film Socialisme into my Top Ten list.
But art and topical relevance are ultimately two different things. To watch Weekend today is to marvel at one of those rare moments when they coincided. More than anybody else—yes, I'm looking at you, Mick Jagger—Godard taught me to cherish those.